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Iraq is Threatened by Catastrophic Drought

Photo by Jayel Aheram | CC BY 2.0

“I once rescued a friend from drowning when he was swept away by the force of the current as we were swimming in the Diyala river,” says Qasim Sabti, a painter and gallery owner in Baghdad.

“That was fifty years ago,” he recalls. “I went back there recently and the water in the Diyala is so shallow today that a man could walk across it with his dog.”

The rivers of Iraq, above all the Tigris and Euphrates, are drying up. The country is becoming more arid, and desertification is eating into the limited amount of agricultural land.

Dams built upriver in TurkeySyria and Iran since the 1970s have reduced the flow of water that reaches Iraq by as much as half and the situation is about to get worse.

“On 1 July, Turkey will start filling the Ilisu dam on the Tigris and this will cause another decline in the inflows to our country of about 50 per cent,” Hassan Janabi, minister of water resources, told The Independent.

He says that Iraq used to get 30 billion cubic metres of water a year from the Euphrates, but now “we are happy if we get 16 billion cubic metres”.

As Iraq begins to recover from 40 years of wars and emergences, its existence is being threatened by the rapidly falling water levels in the two great rivers on which its people depend.

It was on their banks that the first cities were established cities 8,000 years ago and where the flood stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible were first told.

Such floods are now a thing of the past – the last was in 1988 – and each year the amount of water taken by Iraq’s neighbours has been rising.

This pattern started in the 1970s when Turkey and Syria built dams on the Euphrates for hydroelectric power and vast irrigation works. It is the latter which choke off the water supply to Iraq.

The same thing happened a little later to the Tigris, whose major tributaries are being dammed by Iran.

Iraqi protests have been ineffectual because Saddam Hussein and successor government in Baghdad were preoccupied by wars and crises that appeared more important at the time.

By now it is getting too late to reverse the disastrous impact on Iraq of this massive loss of water.

“This summer is going to be tough,” says Mr Janabi, a water resources engineer by training who was in charge of restoring the marshes in southern Iraq after 2003.

Some smaller rivers like the Karun and Kark that used to flow out of Iran into Iraq, have simply disappeared after the Iranians diverted them. He says: “We used to get five billion cubic metres annually from the Karkhah, and now we get zero.”

Iraq was once self-sufficient in food, but now imports 70 per cent of its needs. Locally-grown watermelons and tomatoes are for sale beside the road or in the markets, but most of what Iraqis eat comes from Iran or Turkey or is purchased by the government on the world market.

This amount is set to increase this year because the filling of the Ilisu dam in Turkey is forcing the Iraqi government to restrict the growing of rice and wheat by farmers in order to conserve water used for irrigation.

This man-made drought is only the latest blow to hit Iraqi farmers.

​Imad Naja, a returned colonel in the Iraqi air force, inherited his small family farm near Awad al-Hussein village outside Taji, north of Baghdad, 15 years ago where he at first grew wheat and other crops as well as taking up bee-keeping and fish farming. He produced half a ton of honey a year and dug a fish pond close to his house.

“I feel sad that I put so much work into my farm and look at it now,” he says, explaining that three-quarters of his land is no longer cultivated because it cannot be irrigated. He grows alfalfa for sale as animal feed in the remainder but his beehives lie discarded in one corner of his garden and there are no fish in the pond.

He says: “I get some water from a well that we drilled ourselves, but it is salty.”

He makes more money from hiring out a football pitch he has built behind a high-wire fence than he does from agriculture.

Iraq has a complex network of irrigation channels built over the last century to carry water from the Tigris and Euphrates.

One such channel, named 43, runs close to Mr Naja’s house and, on the day we visited, was full of muddy water that comes from the Tigris. Mr Naja says this may look good, but he is only getting the water for two days each fortnight, which is not enough to cultivate all his land.

“I could manage if I got water for seven days out of 14 but not less,” he says.

As with everything else in Iraq, security or the lack of it plays a central role in the villages around Taji. This is a Sunni area which used to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later of Isis. Mr Naja had been the local leader of al-Sahwah, the paramilitary Sunni movements allied to the US against al-Qaeda a dozen years ago. As Isis advanced south after capturing Mosul in 2014, Taji was heavily fought over, with checkpoints blocking the roads and making travel dangerous.

Mr Naja looks relaxed about his own security, but he has moved his wife and five sons and daughters to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, not only for their safety but because he wants his children to go to good schools not available locally.

A problem is that Erbil used to be two hours’ drive from Taji, but clashes between Kurdish and government forces last year cut the main road and Mr Naja has to make a long diversion so the trip now takes six hours. Nevertheless, he is planning to re-stock his fish pond.

Can anything be done by Iraq to cope with Iraq’s chronic shortage of water? The government does not have enough political leverage in Turkey and Iran to get a greater share of the water which previously flowed into Iraq.  Mr Janabi shows a report on how to successfully manage water in Iraq over the next twenty years. It is a hefty volume, but he said that it is merely the introduction to a complete study of the water crisis that weighs 35 kilos. This apparently explains how Iraq’s water problems could be alleviated, though at a cost of $184bn (£140bn) that the government does not have.

Iraqis are all too aware that the failing supply of water is changing the very appearance of their country. Mr Sabti has just opened an art exhibition in Baghdad in which 90 landscape paintings by Iraqi artists show pastoral views of rivers, lakes, marshes, palm groves, crops and vegetation. “We need to preserve the memory of these places before the Tigris and Euphrates dry up,” he explains. “Some of them will disappear next year because there will be no water.”

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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